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4.3: Prioritizing of the Ways in Different Traditions

  • Page ID
    37068
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    Within any actual religious tradition-such as Buddhism, Islam, or Christianityone is likely to find all six ways of being religious. In any one of a tradition's subtraditions that will not be as likely. Some ways in a religious tradition (even more so in a subtradition) will receive greater emphasis and prestige than others, depending on several factors. Three factors are especially determinative.

    First of all, there is the factor of the symbol system of the religion itself: how flexible it is, how open it is to differing interpretations and further development, and to what extent it (e.g., a passage of canonical scripture) directly emphasizes or discourages a certain way or ways of being religious. Depending on the nature of a particular system of symbols, one way of being religious may be especially encouraged relative to others, with the result that it becomes dominant within that tradition, while another way may be discouraged, with the result that it never receives official endorsement by elders of the tradition and may even be suppressed.

    For example, the Muslim's holy book, the Qur'an, uncompromisingly rejects any practice that amounts to "associating" something that is not God with God in his singular transcendence. This has tended as a matter of course to make Sunni Islam (the broad mainstream of the Islamic religion) uneasy with, if not wholly intolerant of, (a) shamanic phenomena (the way of shamanic mediation), (b) tendencies in popular piety to presume to cultivate a "personal relationship" with Allah (the way of devotion), (c) sacramental interpretations of Muslim ritual · (the way of sacred rite), and (d) pretensions to mystical union with God among Sufi mystics (the way of mystical quest). Indeed, even (e) pursuit of the way of reasoned inquiry in Islam has been subject to censorship when it has ventured to question the literal truth of what the Qur'an straightforwardly states. Thus, principally because of the express nature of the Qur'an as understood in classical Sunni Islam, the way of right action largely dominates all other ways in mainstream Islam-so much so that frequently spokespersons for Sunni Islam deny that these other phenomena are expressions of authentic Islam. Nevertheless, expressions of all six can be found within Sunni Islam, though not in alllocales.11

    Other examples of the same sort of prioritizing of the specific ways of being religious by the canonical symbol system can be found in Buddhism, Hinduism, and the relatively new religion of Baha'i. The historical Buddha, according to what is supposed to be the earliest (Pali) scriptures, placed central emphasis upon a coordinated cultivation of the ways of reasoned inquiry, right action, and mystical quest as the means to achieve nirva1Ja. He explicitly rejected reliance upon acts of worship and ritual practice as in any way helpful to achieving that goal. For similar reasons he discouraged engagement in "supernatural" (shamanic) practices-while nevertheless acknowledging shamanic powers as a byproduct of advanced attainment on the path to nirva1Ja. As a result of these strictures in the primary system of symbols, there has continued to this day in Buddhism a bias against expressions of sacred rite and shamanic mediation. Although there are Buddhist expressions of sacred rite and shamanic mediation, they are subordinated to other ways, except perhaps in so-called Vajrayana Buddhism, which found a home in Tibet, China, and Japan. It is interesting how the Sanskrit canon (officially recognized and delimited collection of authoritative texts) of scripture in Mahayana Buddhism (the Buddhism of Central and East Asia) was for many centuries left relatively undefined, allowing "new" scriptures to appear that have given justification to further ways of being Buddhist.12 In Hinduism, the oldest and most authoritative scriptures, the Vedas and their commentaries, primarily center on sacred rite, though later parts of them emphasized reasoned inquiry, mystical quest, and right action. They make no mention of devotional religion and give no encouragement to it at all. It was not until the composition, several centuries later, of the Bhagavad Gitii and its popular reception as scripture (along with subsequent sectarian scriptures, the Pua1Jas) that today's most prevalent form of Hindu religious life, Bhakti, or Devotional Hinduism, came to flower. In this case it took a significant new development in the primary system of symbols for this way of being religious to become established. 13 Finally, the Baha'i religion, which emerged in nineteenth-century Iran, is an unusual combination of the ways of reasoned inquiry and right action almost exclusively, as far as the present stage of its development is concerned. This is due in large part to the specific character of its scriptures (primarily the writings of its prophet, Baha'u'llah, and other early leaders), which prescribe a minimum of ritual and meditational practice (no sacramental ritual and no path of meditation aimed at altering conscious awareness that this author is aware oD, and give no encouragement to devotional religion or shamanic mediation. Should Baha'i last, and it appears that it will, new ways of being Baha'i may well emerge by way of further developments of those scriptures or novel interpretations of the existing scriptures. 14

    Second, there is the factor of precedent set at any given stage by persuasive interpretations and specific institutionalizations of a tradition's system of symbols. Say that only three ways of being religious become well established in the formative years of a tradition; the result will be increased difficulty for other ways to emerge and become established within the tradition, at least until new social, cultural, or geographic contexts give them opportunity. Take Buddhism, for example. The famous Eightfold Path, taught by the historical Buddha, Siddartha Gautama, was embodied in the institution of early monastic Buddhism. It emphasized moral conduct, wisdom, and contemplation, with special emphasis on contemplation. The consequence was that it has given dominant precedent to the ways of right action, wisdom, and mystical quest in monastic Buddhism to the present day. When Buddhism moved into the new geographic and cultural contexts of Tibet, China, and Japan, other ways of being religious and new variations of already established ways of being religious became established and institutionalized, including forms of nonmonastic, devotional Buddhism and the esoteric Vajrayana subtradition already mentioned. The latter two developments, however, were anticipated by the emergence, still within the Indian Buddhist context, of Pure Land and Tantric Sanskrit scriptures. How much they reflected significant expressions of Indian Buddhist religious life at the time is unknown.15

    A different case of the same sort of influence from precedent occurred in traditional Rabbinic Judaism. After the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Jewish Temple in 70 C.E. (Common Era, 70 C.E. = 70 A.D.) by the Romans, the traditional religion of the Jewish people, which had been centered in the sacrificial ritual of the Temple, was forced to change drastically to survive. Among the several religious orientations competing to determine the future of the Jewish people, it was the teaching of the leaders of the so-called Pharisee party that devised a Judaism that was able to survive without the Temple. That teaching became the core of the Talmud, an exposition of the implications of the Torah (the "Revelation from God"16 that they believe to have been given through Moses at Mt. Sinai). For the ensuing Jewish tradition, the Talmud came to have an authority almost equal to scripture until modern times. With the Talmuds central emphasis on participation in serious Torah study (for all males) and a life sanctified by the many commandments of God, it gave central primacy to the way of reasoned inquiry and the way of right action over all other ways. Nevertheless, the way of sacred rite was given considerable room for expression in traditional, post-Biblical Judaism (more than in Islam, perhaps partly because of the background of the ancient Temple rites in Jerusalem). For example, the weekly Sabbath observances and the annual festivals such as Passover clearly involve presentational symbols and sacramental actions. The Rabbis advise that each generation is to understand itself through the ritual of Passover as being rescued by God from slavery in Egypt. Also, to be present at the ritual reading of a portion of the Torah in the synagogue, pious Jews understand themselves to be present again at Mt. Sinai when God first presented the Torah to Israel. Nevertheless, here sacred rite remains relatively subordinate to right action as something done because it is commanded by God rather than a direct means of approach to God. Even so, to participate in such rites is sacramentally to return to and become a part of the events ofJewish sacred history. Kabbala, the way of mystical quest in Judaism, has long had a revered though subordinate and somewhat restricted place. It involves deciphering and meditating upon esoteric meanings of virtually every passage of the Torah, meanings that pertain to one's inner, spiritual life and are believed to link the latter to the redemptive activity of God in the world at large. Where Kabbala did emerge, it remained a largely hidden, esoteric underside to the outward observances of Jewish religious life for the relative few who became involved in it, rather than expressing itself in some independent institutional form. There are suggestions here and there in the Jewish tradition of aspects of the way of devotion-for example, in the optional prayers of the Siddur (traditional Jewish book of worship). However, significant expressions of the way of devotion and the very possibility of any expression of way of shamanic mediation (after the end of Biblical prophecy, which manifests aspects of shamanic mediation), seem to have required the emergence of a novel form of Judaism known as Hasidism (see later discussion) in the eighteenth century, which also marked a new stage in the evolution of Kabbala. In early Hasidism, individual piety and religious fervor took precedence over study of Torah, and the Hasidic leaders, or Rebbes, became charismatic mediators of divine presence and power for their followers. (A case could be made that the way of devotion, somewhat like Kabbala, was always a kind of hidden underside to outward observance among unsophisticated, ordinary Jews--especially for those for whom the intellectually demanding practice of traditional Torah study was not a serious option.)17

    A third factor influencing whether and to what extent a given way of being religious emerges is the particular existential motivation(s) of the major historical interpreters of the tradition in any given epoch and the need(s) of the people they serve. For example, Rabbinical Judaism through its postbiblical history more or less systematically discouraged, if it did not suppress, the emergence of a vigorous individual devotional life as well as interest in shamanic phenomena and practice (including the idea that there might be some new prophetic word from God). But violent persecution, severe poverty, and a moribund state of Talmudic scholarship in Eastern Europe in the late eighteenth century set conditions ripe for the emergence of a radically new form of Judaism, Hasidism, which gave significant place to both. Interestingly, the emergence of Hasidism in East European Jewry roughly coincided with the Pietist movement in European Christianity and its American counterpart, the First Great Awakening (the first great revivalist movement) in the American colonies. Some of the same reasons historians have cited for the emergence of Hasidism have been cited by other historians to account for the emergence of Pietism. In any case, the birth of what has since come to be known as Evangelical Christianity originated at this time-largely, it appears, in response to a deep hunger of ordinary people for a vibrant Christianity of the heart that was relevant to their individual lives, in contrast to the nonrelevance and moribund state they felt (whether rightly or not) had come to characterize traditional Protestantism. Much the same could be said of the rise of the fifteenth-century Pietist Movement in Europe known as the Devotio Moderna, which profoundly influenced the leaders of the Protestant Reformation.

    This influence of people's existential needs upon the emergence of a way of being religious is not unique to the way of devotion. A very similar account with different motivations could be given for flourishing of the mystical quest in the history of Christianity from time to time-for example, the rise of Christian monasticism with the Desert Fathers in the fourth and fifth centuries, the Carthusians in the eleventh, the Cistercians in the twelfth, Rhineland and English Mysticism in the fourteenth, and Spanish Mysticism in the sixteenth-although it has never attracted the large numbers of people that the way of devotion has. Similarly, the flourishing of philosophical theology in Islam (one expression of the way of reasoned inquiry in Islam)-especially that known as Mu 'tazilite Theology in the ninth centurywas in large measure a response to the need of reflective Muslims to come to terms with the more intellectually sophisticated philosophical ideas and challenges it encountered in the writings of Plato and Aristotle. Substantially the same problem was faced by medieval European Christians in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, resulting in the emergence of scholastic philosophical theology.18


    This page titled 4.3: Prioritizing of the Ways in Different Traditions is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Dale Cannon (Independent) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.